Created in 2006, the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards recognize five women entrepreneurs each year from five regions of the world for the quality and the promise of their project. This year, two French women have entered the final round of this international competition, something that has not happened since 2007. Both joyful and extremely motivated, they are - with their male and female associates - the driving force of projects aiming to improve people’s health.
Cécile Réal has a remarkable career path. At only 38, she has already created two companies in the field of health technologies. She worked as an engineer in Cogema (now Areva), a French industrial company specialized in nuclear fuel activities. In 1999, when the group stopped operating in the field of medical research, Cécile decided to devoted her efforts to the creation of a company that would exploit the technologies they had developed. After two rounds of fundraising and a long road building the company, marked in the end by disagreements with their investors, the funders decided to sell in 2007.
From the beginning, Cécile says, she has had the entrepreneurial spirit. But “when, at 25, I told my father that I had created a company, he said ‘That’s great, but could you find a job?’” Some years later when she was given the opportunity to start a project again, she didn’t hesitate. “I was definitely missing it.”
That chance presented itself when Cécile learned about endometriosis. Endometriosis is a common health disorder that is linked to the migration of cells normally lining the womb to other areas of the body. This can cause severe pain and sometimes infertility if left untreated. As with many gynecological afflictions, endometriosis is not well known, even though it concerns approximately 10% of women in the world. “Today, surgery is the only way to treat endometriosis when it is at an advanced stage. On average, it takes 9 years from the appearance of the disease to its diagnosis and treatment through surgery.” The number of women affected is estimated at around 180 million in the world. “We wondered how we could provide health care professionals with a better understanding of the illness and better diagnosis and tools.”
Created in January 2011, Endodiag has developed a medical kit to standardize the sampling of endometrial tissues lining the womb. The kit includes a protocol for the samples and the analysis. It improves the quality of the sampling. “Our lab also provides an analysis of the samples to detect the illness and evaluate its severity. We are also developing a method of in vitro diagnosis from a simple blood sample.” This would avoid surgery that costs around $10,000 and can, like any other type of surgery, be dangerous.
40% of the women affected by endometriosis suffer from infertility. 10% develop ovarian cancer. But the uterus has always been a difficult or shameful subject to talk about. “A lot of people think pain during menstruation is normal… but one in ten women actually suffers from this illness.”
The fact that Cécile is a woman might have something to do with the choice of the pathology the company is focused on. Even if unconsciously, our sex, culture and personal interests have an influence over our choices. Although only between 20 and 30% of entrepreneurs are female, they do exist. Equity is important in every creative field. Women entrepreneurs may sometimes choose to deal with neglected or women-related subjects.
Michèle Boisdron-Celle is a biologist and pharmacologist. In 1994, she founded an oncology unit in the Paul Papin Cancer Institute in Angers, France, and in 2006 a Tumor Biopathology department. Some years ago she met Erick Gamelin, a clinician and cancer specialist. “Every day Eric was faced with patients who suffered from the toxicity induced by the treatment of their cancer. The therapeutic molecules used for the treatment can cure, but they can also kill.” Today, explains Michèle, the therapeutic dose is calculated in accordance with the body surface area of each patient. “But it is crazy to give everyone the same dose, only taking into account their body surface. We do not react to the substance in the same way.” Indeed, the body has to eliminate those toxic molecules. “Sometimes the body cannot eliminate it and the person will die. Other people eliminate it too fast, so the treatment cannot be effective.” Michèle and her team have, thus, been studying why metabolisms react differently to the treatments. They specialy focused on one molecule commonly used in chemotherapy for colorectal, breast and other cancers.
“In 2010, we created a start-up called Onco Drug Personalized Medicine. It was the culmination of 15 years of research.” Their goal is to bring to market their solutions of personalized medicine for cancer therapies to improve treatments. By studying the reactions of the body to substances, they can adapt the dose of medicine to be delivered. “Our motto is ‘more effective, less toxic’, because we are all different.” According to biological parameters, their algorithm suggests a dosage to doctors, but “the health professional has the final say on the choice of treatment and dosage”.
“There was a time when doctors thought treatments had to be toxic in order to be effective.” Indeed, cancers can be very aggressive. A patient with colorectal cancer has only 6 months to live. Everything possible must be done to cure the disease. But recently, diagnoses have improved, so patients are younger and younger. “Treatments should be the least toxic possible.” Not every death due to toxic side effects is declared, but it is estimated that in the US 1,400 patients die every year from their treatments’ toxicity.
“Hospitals conducting research file many patents but their purpose is not to commercialize treatments and techniques.” Michèle and her colleagues have developed a kit for individualized analyses and therapeutic advice. “The kits costs only 150 euros per patient – far less than the price of severe or fatal drug toxicity. Beyond its ethical dimension of saving someone’s life, it benefits the society.”